darkroom

The sound of erratic breathing, the rush of air pushing through parted lips and the stunted sprinting of feet down the pavement. Howling sirens echoed along the empty brick walls. He could hear his name being called, resounding in his heart and his ears in the midst of sirens blasting around him. His body trembled with the impending fear that he would be caught.

The evidence was clutched in his hands, a can of juice. Why did he have to touch it? It was obvious that he did not have enough change to purchase his favorite drink and meant to replace it back on the shelf when the cashier barked at him to stay still. The next minute, he heard the man speaking furiously on the phone for Officer Lee to come by the corner store and pick up a delinquent. Who was the delinquent? Him?

Before he could even think about being caught, the young boy whooshed out the door, shoving between two customers and with his long lanky legs, began sprinting down the streets of Cullen Ave like a mad man. He didn’t know why he ran instead of explaining himself but the vindictive glare of the cashier was enough to make even the most naive child flee, not that he wasn’t innocent.

So the young boy lifted his head to the sky and whispered a quick prayer that he would not have to be caught, his feet flying behind him and gasping for air. Tears streamed down his face with relief once he spotted the tall steeple of the faded yellow siding of the bungalow he once thought as a prison but now proved to be a temporary haven. Then he noticed a couple of flashing lights from a few cop cars parked in the driveway and blocking the streets, and staggered to a stop.

Shivering in trepidation at his awaited punishment from both the police officers and Mrs. Yancey, the boy stalled on the other side of the street, watching other cars drive past. He couldn’t return to the corner store, knowing that more police officers waited there.

“Hey boy!” a commanding voice barked from the other side of the street.

He jerked his widened eyes to see two police officers, their legs poised for the chase and the tips of their hats glaring with imminent authority. He was in trouble. The young boy gulped, still contemplating whether he should run. His feet shifted, a grating sound on the pavement to match the incessant and irregular beat of his heart. What should he do?

“Tevin! Yeh Officer, das him ova there.” a woman’s shrilling voice echoed down the street from the bungalow, causing a cold shiver down his scrawny bones. He didn’t have to look to know the woman was glaring threats on him, probably throwing expletives in her mind to him. “Boi, git ova here afor I smack yo behind all the way back to Tuesday!”

Her threats were the ignition he needed to spin on his heels and start running again. Except it was no good as the small boy crashed into the barreled-chest of another police officer who had crept behind him once distracted by his colleagues and the boy’s furious foster mother. It was over before he knew it.

 —

The resounding slam of metal sliding along metal defined his fate. Poor kid stared bleakly between the metal rods at the empty corridor, fingers trembling. This wasn’t where he should be at 11:57 at night. He missed his bed, missed the arguing on the other side of the paper-thin walls, the shoving and poking from his siblings.

He didn’t want this empty cell, his feet shivering inside his faded and worn slip-on shoes. There was no way he would sit on the cold stone floor while waiting for the police officers to condemn him to juvenile. He was too young, for goodness’ sake!

Barely celebrating nine years of life without seeing his real parents and forced to share even a sole banana-nut muffin purchased by Mrs. Yancey that same day, the young boy wanted to cry that everything in life was unfair.

Casting his eyes to the top stone ceiling of the claustrophobic cell, the young boy wrapped his long and slender fingers around the two thick rods. God, if you’re really up there like Mrs. Yancey says every night…. Do you hate me? Why won’t you help me? It was not a pleading prayer but rather one to see if the man upstairs even knew he existed. If he did, what kind of life was this?

Once the sound of another jail gate slammed close, the boy lowered his head desolately at the silence suffocating the entire jail despite the racking cough from another cellmate next door. Forcing his scrawny shoulders to remain still, the boy shifted away from the door and walked to the back wall of the jail, sliding to the floor. He masked his discomfort once the cold seeped through his thin hand-me-down faded jeans and leaned his head forward to catch some sleep. It seemed, from the quiet outside the corridor, that no one would come for him tonight.

 —

She kept coming everyday, sitting by the wall with her pale wrists crossed over the brown leather bag she propped on her lap. Her eyes were downcast, her brow furrowed in deep thought but she managed to lift her head whenever the metal doors slid open. Her hazel eyes would light up momentarily but once she noticed it was just another police officer, dragging an older man in and out from the corridor, she would sigh heavily and look down again.

Some of the police officers had their theories of who she was. The woman, probably in her early-thirties, always showed up nine in the morning, trudging into the police station and leaning on her wooden-carved cane with a gnarled hook. She didn’t say anything to any of the police officers, merely glancing at the empty corridor with sad, resigned eyes before perching on a seat by the wall. Watching her move around was painful for some of the discrete onlookers. Most knew that under that long, printed skirt she wore was a twisted leg from the knee down. No one understood why she came and no one dared to ask. They simply just watched her warily and quietly, waiting.

Another temporary resident of the South East Patrol on Mykawa St was also waiting and losing sleep while doing so. A week and a half had already passed and no shadow of Mrs. Yancey or anyone from his house had graced the step of the jail cell. Every time he heard shuffling feet or the sound of rustling keys, he would look up with hopeful eyes and slowly lower them down when it was only another cellmate or a police officer bringing him something to snack on. The piteous looks they gave him only made him more sure that no one was coming for him, no matter how many times he lifted a whisper to the ceiling or wished upon a star he could only imagine was gracing the darkened sky outside.

So on another dark cold night, just after he’d finished another packet of Austin Peanut and Wheat crackers, the boy lifted his knees to his chest and propped his forehead on them to sleep. This time, when the rustling keys and shuffling feet sounded off, he didn’t lift his head to see who was moving in. Still, his heart stirred when the footsteps paused in front of his cell and he held his breath. The keys clinked against the rods of his jail cell and too curious, he shifted his head sideways and peeked from one narrowed eye. Both widened instantly when he saw the same officer, Officer Menjivar, who gave him the snack staring at him with a gentle smile. The boy blinked silently, not knowing what to think or how to react. Was it time to have his bathroom break?

“Time to go home, kid,” the middle-aged Hispanic officer with narrow shoulders and a pouch said kindly, turning the key into the gate port and pushed open the door.

Flabbergasted, the boy remained seated and gaped up at the man, his body frozen.

Officer Menjivar chuckled and stepped into the jail cell. “Your legs not any good, mijo?” he extended a hand to him.

Meekly, the boy lifted his hand and placed it in the officer’s rough one. Holding his breath, he found himself being tugged up like a sack of sand and he staggered to his feet.

Chortling still, the police officer patted the boy on his back but jerked his hand back when he felt the boy’s icy and thin shoulders. His brow furrowed and he averted his eyes immediately. He cleared his throat and walked back to the exit. But when he didn’t hear footsteps behind him, the man glanced over his shoulder and cocked an inquisitive brow at the hesitating fellow still standing in the middle of the cell. “Well, what are you waiting for? C’mon.”

Unsure if this was the same reoccurring dream he’d had since he was first placed in the empty jail, the boy shifted back inside. “W-where am I going?” he’d heard the taunting from his neighbors that the local juvenile center was much scary and daunting than this lonely cell. If that was true, he’d rather stay here since the officers treated him pretty well, considering.

Officer Menjivar blinked at him, not sure why he shivered involuntarily at the anxiety coating the boy’s hazel eyes. He managed a smile because he had no other way to comfort the kid. “Hey listen, there’s someone here to take you home.”

The boy swallowed hard, his eyes still widened in trepidation. Was it Mrs. Yancey? He shook his head slowly without thinking and stepped back toward the cell again, already imagining the torturous punishment that awaited him at the house.

“Kid, relax… You’ll be fine.” Officer Menjivar stepped forward and extended a hand again. “I promise.” He masked a wince when the adolescent blinked again at him. It seemed these kind of kids who were shoved like sardines in foster homes heard that cursed word for many years and grown immune to the consequences of trusting someone who used it freely. “Just come out and see. If you don’t want, we’ll take care of it, entiendes?”

Eyes pleading with the officer to not fail him, the boy finally walked toward him without looking to his left or right. Again Menjivar held back a shiver with the urgent plea echoed in the boy’s eyes but kept his gaze on the boy for as long as he could before the boy himself looked down. It was enough for the seasoned officer and he cleared his throat, shifting around to open the door.

The boy blinked rapidly at the change of lighting and the sounds of chattering and phones ringing on the other side of the door. His cheeks warmed with gratitude and utter relief. He was leaving this prison. But he stiffened again, realizing that this next step would determine his future. What was awaiting on the other side of this door and would he be able to handle it?

“C’mon,” Officer Menjivar probed his thoughts and the boy glanced up at the gentle-eyed man. He stepped aside, the security of his narrow shoulders absent for a moment as the boy shuffled out of the corridor. Amid the chaotic noise of phones and voices outside, there was a moment of silence in the office once the other enforcement agents paused to greet their newcomer silently. One woman sitting on the corner of the office, now stood slowly and leaned on her gnarled cane, her eyes affixed on the young slender light-skinned boy standing by the stout officer. She blinked back the tears that ensued, the corner of her lips twitching to hold back a grateful smile. He was here.

The boy’s keen eyes scanned the room warily, already expecting a disappointment. He noticed the amused expressions of some of the officers who had wrestled him to the cold and rough pavement outside his foster home. Shifting his gaze to the other side of the room, he blinked in confusion at the strange look on the woman’s face. She was slender and small yet her frumpy clothes hid her bowed shoulders. Her reddish-brown hair curled and swept over her forehead, almost hiding the heavy stare that was directed on his face. The way she stared at him was what left him speechless and confused. Was that who was here for him? Why?

As if hearing his thoughts, Officer Menjivar turned slowly to the boy and smiled gently. “Mijo, I want you to meet someone…” He glanced over at the woman and nodded, then he placed a hand on the boy’s shoulders and gently pushed him toward the woman who tried to shuffle forward despite her discomfort. “Madam, this is Tevin Gosley.”

Without permission, his heart stirred again and the boy held his breath. This woman’s gaze seemed familiar, almost like Officer Menjivar’s except that her eyes were filling up with tears at the corners. Why was she crying? His fingers curled inward into fists, anticipating a scorn or twisting of her lips to blame him for something he wasn’t aware he did.

Then the woman sniffed, pausing his rampant thoughts and forcing him to peer up at her. She blinked and two lone tears slid slowly down her plump, heart-shaped face. Leaning one hand on her cane, she extended a small, frail and pale hand out to him. “Hello…” she said, her lips trembling to form a sound. Another sniff from her pert freckled nose. “My name is Mrs. Ida Warren.”

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